Artist's impression of an expanded Magee campus with a medical school along the riverfront
Plans for a Magee Medical School opening next year have been cast into doubt after the Economy Minister told a committee meeting that ‘significant work’ is required and questioned Ulster University’s financial stability.
It comes just days after Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill announced that the long-awaited Derry medical school had been agreed by the Executive and said she expects students to enrol in September 2021.
Speaking at yesterday’s economy committee meeting, deputy chair and SDLP MLA Sinead McLaughlin said: “It would be remiss of me not to thank you in relation to the Executive announcement regarding Magee, and I know there’s still work to be done but there is an imminent deadline and obviously the first intake of students is September 2021 according to the announcement.
“We’re delighted about that and the whole city is definitely celebrating that good news story. Hopefully whatever work has to be done in the next few weeks, everything will go through.”
In response DUP Minister Diane Dodds highlighted ‘significant work’ that has to be done and said additional papers will be presented to the Executive.
She commented: “The announcement on the Magee Medical School was a good announcement for the Executive to make, a good announcement for the city, but more importantly just a good announcement for the whole of Northern Ireland.
“It is quite clear that we need more doctors and we want more of our young people to be able to train and re-train.”
However, she added: “I’m not pretending that the path ahead is easy, there is a significant amount of work to do in relation to the issues around capacity of Ulster University and the financial position of Ulster University. And there is a significant amount of work to do about that.
“But we have set ourselves on a pathway and we are working quite hard on that. There will be further papers to the Executive on that in due course.”
In February the Department of Finance confirmed that a £126m loan had been agreed in the form of an ‘addendum to the business case’ for Ulster University’s vastly over-budget Belfast campus.
The Department for the Economy will be responsible for overall approval.
The relocation of Jordanstown to Belfast city centre was initially expected to cost £254m but swelled to around £264m.
On Monday, May 18, Deputy First Minister revealed that the medical school had been given the go-ahead.
But, a short time later, the department responsible for its delivery said 'further work' is needed to guarantee student intake next year.
An Executive Office spokesperson stated: “The Executive has reaffirmed its commitment to establish a Graduate Entry Medical School at Magee, as set out in New Decade, New Approach.
“Further work is being undertaken to secure a sustainable outcome for the project within the fastest possible timescales.
“Plans are being progressed that would allow an initial student intake of 70 in September 2021 and the Executive will consider this issue again next month.”
To begin with the school will train 70 doctors within existing buildings on the Magee campus.
Supported by City Deal money, a new Medical School facility is expected to be built along the riverfront but that is likely to lie some years ahead.
When fully operational with 110 students in 2029/30 it will cost £27m to run per year, according to UU.
Speaking at Monday’s press conference Michelle O’Neill said plans are being progressed that ‘will allow the first student intake of 70 in September 2021’.
She added: “This is a hugely important investment decision for the North West and it adds to the Executive's recent announcement on the Derry and Strabane City Deal and Inclusive Future Fund.
"It will prove to be instrumental in the regeneration of the region and will help to support our health service who we much rely on at this point and into the future."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has asked for more detail and said a ‘guarantee’ was needed that students will start in 2021.
He believes student intake in 2021 is ‘far from certain’ and there are a number of issues to be addressed, including the matter of recurring funding from the Executive.
“People don’t have to be put through the hoops that we’ve been put through to get something for Derry but it is largely down to the need for recurring funding.
“It’s hopeful, it’s positive, it’s good, but I do think we need to ask questions about how certain this is and I think we’re right to do that given all that we’ve been through.”
In terms of long-term goals for expansion, the Foyle MP added: “We need to keep our eye on the big prize and that is 10,000 students.”
While welcoming the news DUP MLA Gary Middleton said he ‘hoped’ the Magee Medical School would be delivered in 2021.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Derry University Group (DUG), which is campaigning for an independent university in the city, said it is proposing that all future Higher Education (HE) development in the North West be led and managed under the auspices of an independent university.
He added: “UU has neither the finance, capacity nor political will to deliver for Derry.
“To that end Derry and Donegal Councils should immediately establish their own HE Development and Scrutiny Committee.”
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